Compulsive Stealers, from Celebrities to Regular Joes


indsay Lohan is back in the news, this time with an alleged shoplifting incident that involves a very expensive necklace and potential felony charges.  According to reports this current offense may very well cause her to lose career opportunities, dashing her hopes for reviving her faltering acting career.  It is certainly sad to watch this young woman’s problems play out on the public stage.  It is equally as sad to know that this kind of impulsive/compulsive stealing situation happens every day to ordinary people, destroying careers, lives and families.

We can see in the case of Ms. Lohan that compulsive stealing is not just something that occurs to the less educated, poor or socially disenfranchised segments of our population.  Compulsive stealing occurs in all socio-economic classes, races and genders.

All too often people with kleptomania and compulsive stealing issues are never assessed or treated for their stealing behaviors.  Those who seek treatment often arrive in therapy when their criminal records are so dire that they are facing life altering consequences.  Patients who aren’t specifically seeking treatment for stealing behaviors rarely disclose they have a problem because the shame is too great.  People understandably fear how disclosing their stealing problem may change the way people see them.

There is a great deal of misunderstanding about kleptomania and patients with compulsive stealing behaviors.  The popular cultural stereotypes of individuals that steal represent two extremes: an anti-social criminal who is selfish, self-motivated, and has no conscious, or a crazy old aunt that everyone in town knows steals everything she gets her hands on and the family quietly ignores or repairs the damage she wreaks in the community.  This population is diverse, some people steal daily, some go for longs periods time without stealing, some steal only from small retailers, and some from big box stores as well as family and friends.  The common experience is the inability to resist the urge to steal no matter how frequent or infrequent that urge arises.

Most people who steal compulsively are deeply ashamed and know that their stealing is wrong and against social norms and values.  Because their behavior conflicts with their values, they often seem to lack self-awareness and self-understanding — they are in deep denial, and don’t understand the behavior themselves.  So when shoplifters are told to “just stop” or “don’t you know the trouble you are causing yourself and you family,” it misses the point that they are suffering from an impulse disorder and these individuals are not in control of their behavior.  Just like an alcoholic who can not have one glass of wine to relax.

What can we do to begin to address the needs of this population?  The first step is to break the silence and help people with the problem come out of hiding and get help. If you are a mental health professional treating patients with addictions, mood disorders, hoarding behaviors, eating disorders, learning and attention differences begin by asking patients do they have any history of impulsively stealing, like shoplifting. If you are a parent, friend or partner and notice that things literally don’t add up and/or your loved one is living well beyond their means and apparently purchasing things beyond their salary earnings without incurring massive debt (although debt is often present for those who steal), call an expert for help, information, assessment and support.

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